According to Jewish tradition, some souls are so wicked or have committed such grievous sins that, after death, not only can’t they enter Paradise, even Hell doesn’t want them. There’s no place for them. Instead evil angels refuse to allow these souls to rest, lashing them with fiery whips and driving them endlessly all over Earth. Jewish cosmology understands this punishment to be worse than Hell. Sometimes, however, the souls manage to escape from the avenging angels, at least for a little while.

When they escape, they attempt to hide by jumping into the nearest object or living being.

Dybbuks will enter sheep, horses, or dogs, but as human souls, it’s not a comfortable fit. Dybbuk possession may also be too much for the animal, which may die shortly thereafter, either of “natural” causes or as a result of frenzied behavior intended to drive out the invader. The Dybbuk is then left exposed unless it can quickly find another host. The ideal host for a Dybbuk is another human being.

Dybbuk possession is uniformly negative. There is no such thing as positive or benevolent Dybbuk possession. Essentially a Dybbuk is a restless, frightened, frustrated soul who may genuinely have been guilty of terrible things while alive and now takes possession and advantage of a living person. The person may be a complete stranger, simply the most convenient possible host. There are legends of Dybbuks hidden in horses jumping into the stable boy in the same way that someone upgrades their seat on an airplane.

Dybbuks are already dead. There’s little that can be done to punish them. There’s nothing you can do that’s worse than those avenging angels. The crucial part of exorcism is protecting and saving the Dybbuk’s living host. Exorcism is a sensitive balance of coercion and negotiation. Certain magical passages or biblical verses may force the Dybbuk to leave, but it’s crucial that the Dybbuk be cooperative or else the host may be harmed, possibly fatally.

The word Dybbuk derives from a Hebrew root word meaning “to cleave to” or “to stick to.” That’s exactly what a Dybbuk does: it attaches itself to another being and refuses to leave. Dybbuks can be exorcised, usually by shamanic rabbis who may be able to negotiate better afterlife terms for the Dybbuk, either shortening their stay with their pursuing angels or arranging for the expiation of crimes and sins so that the Dybbuk can enter Paradise. Dybbuk exorcism must not be done by amateurs, because if done incorrectly the host can be harmed or killed. The Dybbuk is usually forced to leave the body from beneath the nail on the big toe, as that is where departure will cause the least damage to the host.

The Dybbuk is the most widely produced play in Jewish theatrical history, translated and performed in English, French, German, Polish, Japanese, Swedish, and many other languages. It serves as source material for two operas. The 1937 Yiddish movie version is available on DVD.

Some Dybbuks attempt to live silently within their hosts; their presence may remain undetected for a long time. The host simply sometimes behaves erratically or differently, but this Dybbuk tries very hard to stay secret and silent. Other Dybbuks assert their presence: speaking through the mouths of their hosts. The host may suddenly betray knowledge that they previously lacked. They may suddenly be fluent in languages previously unknown. Someone else’s voice may emerge from the host’s mouth. Some Dybbuks are arrogant, making demands, convinced that they can’t be forced to leave. The most powerful may resist several exorcists. More than one attempt may be required to make them leave.

Concurrent to the European witch panic, Central and Eastern European Jewish communitieshad a Dybbuk panic. Most Dybbuks are male, but their victims were almost uniformly young women. Exorcists are also almost uniformly male, which makes for some interesting sexual dynamics in a sexually conservative society.

Dybbuks assumed a romantic air in the twentieth century in the wake of the hit Yiddish play The Dybbuk written by S. Anski (1863–1920), the pen name of folklorist Solomon Rappaport.

Anski’s Dybbuk is a romantic tragedy: its Dybbuk is a young, poor scholar who only wishes to be with the girl he loves and had hoped to marry. It changed forever the way Dybbuks were envisioned.

See also: Erinyes; Ghost; Ibur; and the Glossary entry for Possession